How to Describe Your Book to a Publisher

8072408810_d4fe687b3f_nDown through the dusty annals of antiquity comes the whisper of wisdom to any writer bold enough to listen: “Without vision, the people perish.”

Or, as I like to say, “Without vision, publishers will run for the hills.”

You’ve come up with a concept, crafted a bio, and developed a working title and subtitle. Now it’s time to go deeper with a brief description of your book.

The brief description is where you cast the vision for your book. The working title begins to do this, and hopefully it’s compelling enough for an editor to turn the page. Once she does, what vision will she see? If it’s compelling, you’ve got a solid chance of getting published. If not, well, not.

Brief setup: In December 2012 I started a series of posts on how to write a book proposal. I got two posts in before realizing the series would be far more helpful to folks if I actually coached a writer through the process of crafting a book proposal. After a brief contest of sorts I decided to work with Gary Neal Hansen. My strong hope is that others will be working on their book proposals as I coach Gary through this process. So far I’ve posted about motivationconceptbioplatform, and working title.

You may want to include a one-sentence summary before the brief description, and agent Rachelle Gardner did a fine post on this.

The brief description is a three- to five-paragraph summary of your book as a whole, including:

  • its purpose,
  • targeted readership,
  • anticipated length, and
  • an ETA for the complete manuscript

Obviously you could simply write these like a robot . . .

  • Purpose: to change the world
  • Targeted readership: people
  • Anticipated length: 50,000 words
  • ETA: In six months

You might chuckle at this, but I promise I have seen proposals that are just this . . . uninspired.

Reading is nothing if not an experience. Your brief description is casting a vision for the kind of experience readers will have when they read your book. This is also likely the first place an editor will be exposed to your writing style. In other words, the brief description is your first writing sample.

See why it’s important?

Following is Gary Neal’s brief description:

One for the World: How Christian Community Has Been (and Can Be) a Catalyst for Mission looks at six historic movements, each of which had a distinctive way of living in Christian community. In every case their community life blossomed into service and mission that changed the world. In every case there are priorities, practices, and other elements for today’s churches and fellowships to make use of to deepen relationship with God and neighbor, and to empower participation in God’s work.  The movements span 1500 years and have a broad ecumenical range: Benedictine monasticism, the Beguines of the Middle Ages, Reformation-era Reformed Protestants, the Moravian Pietists of Herrnhut, the early Methodists under John Wesley, and the more recent Christian Base Communities of Latin America. Their own lives were changed by the ways they drew close to God and to each other. In the process they developed compassion for God’s beloved world and the skills to reach out to it.

The theological taproot of the book is Jesus’ prayer in John 17.  Jesus prays that the church would be as united as Christ and his heavenly Father–an extraordinary standard for Christian community, since Jesus describes himself and his Father as virtually one through a kind of mutual indwelling.  And he prays that his followers, by virtue of being one, would serve his purposes in reaching the world with the Gospel–which is radically countercultural in a day when community is often measured by the private feelings of the community’s own members.

 

Each of the six chapters of the 53,000 word book tells the story of one group and its impact, examining the practices and norms that created its unique ethos and quality of life.  The conclusion looks briefly at six movements from our day that in very different ways seek to create community for depth of discipleship and to catalyze mission. An appendix provides guidance to pastors and small group leaders who want to lead study groups on the book. The aim is to explore history for the sake of finding wisdom for the present, so each chapter also includes tools for individuals and groups to use as they evaluate their present community life and dream a more faithful and more satisfying, more effective future. Rather than encouraging people to reproduce one of the historical movements studied, the book helps readers see their own communities clearly by comparing and contrasting priorities, practices, structures and norms with effective communities from the past. The goal is to develop ways of being community adapted to the 21st century context that deepen a shared life of discipleship.

 

The target audience is those who want tools to create community life more meaningful than what is offered in their churches; more meaningful because it prompts deeper engagement with God, richer relationships between members, and an engagement with the world that grows from their living of the Gospel life. This includes those in traditional congregations who long for something more in their life together, college students thinking through adult discipleship in the context of para-church fellowships, and those currently developing new communities of faith such as emergent church plants and the New Monasticism. The book has potential in the textbook market as well; I am developing a class which would use this book as its framework, fleshed out with primary sources and other current works.

 

I am eligible for a year of sabbatical leave, during which I will do the bulk of the writing. However, it is not institutionally convenient for me to take the sabbatical until the 2014-2015 academic year. Therefore the projected date for a completed manuscript is September of 2015.

This is a solid description, no question, and Gary certainly covered all the points a brief description needs to cover. He also exhibits his writing style, which is clear and thorough and theologically precise. All good things.

So, what do you think of the vision he casts? It’s not bad, right? I especially love the practical emphasis. If I read Gary’s book, he’s telling me I will be able to cultivate an outwardly focused community that has a world-changing impact. That’s a compelling promise.

One little thing about this sentence: “The goal is to develop ways of being community adapted to the 21st century context that deepen a shared life of discipleship.” What I miss here is language to do with mission. Obviously being a disciple of Jesus implies such, but it would be nice to reference it directly here because it’s a key part of the book.

A word about the length of Gary’s description. I would not necessarily say it’s too long, but it could be shorter and might be stronger if it was. At this point in the proposal, you’re still trying to prevent the reviewer from stopping for any reason. Some of this material could probably be incorporated into the chapter-by-chapter synopsis. For example, the theological taproot material is likely covered in the introduction of the book. Why not save it for synopsis of the intro?

Let’s go deeper into the experience Gary is planning to give the reader. He’s planning six chapters and 53,000 words. Assume 5,000 words for ancillary material, and you’re at about 7,500 words for each of the six chapters. At 250 to 300 words per printed book page, the chapters will be 25 to 30 pages long. Chapters this long can work for a trade (i.e., nonacademic) audience, especially with headings to break up the content, but it begs the question: What is the most compelling way for a book on this topic to be structured? Assuming the content is malleable (and it may or may not, and if so its malleability is likely not unlimited), what would be the ideal structure?

I tend to think more and shorter chapters would make for a more compelling reading experience. I also think it would be ideal for Gary, eventually within each chapter, to hover around one practical, takeaway theme for each community—one thing from each community that I can begin to incorporate within my own community.

Having just visited the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I wonder if it would be true to history to think of the Civil Rights Movement as a Christian community that changed the world. Having been influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder, I wonder whether a chapter on the Anabaptists would make sense. What about the Quakers? I’m just tossing out possibilities.

I wonder too, Gary, about the place of narrative within the book. We all love a great story. Do you plan to tell some stories of these communities in the book? For example, I can imagine each chapter beginning with a narrative, and you could incorporate them throughout as well.

Finally, I wonder if an added benefit of this book, which Gary may or may not have considered, is its ecumenical value. Protestant readers will be reading about Catholics who have changed the world, and vice versa. That’s cool! And it might be worth mentioning this as an added, secondary benefit in the brief description. OK, I might have just made your description longer, having just encouraged you (kind of) to shorten it, but I did give you a way to shorten it too!

In closing let me say this kind of feedback has the potential to drive a writer right up a wall, especially an academic. “He’s not an expert on Christian movements,” Gary could well think. “I am! Where does he get off telling me to write about more than six movements? That’s crazy! That’s not historical! That doesn’t fit with the paradigm I’m setting up here!” And it’s true: Gary has more knowledge in his little pinky about Christian movements than I’ll ever have. Here’s what I offer: my own sense of what readers are looking for. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. But what kind of editor would I be if I didn’t share my best advice about what I think will actually appeal in the marketplace. When I offer this input, I’m doing my best to predict for you what actual readers will find engaging. And if you think that’s a risky thing to do, you’re absolutely right.

Want to give it a try? Include a brief description of your book (or part of one) in the comments, and then be sure to give input to others who have included theirs. Also, feel free to offer Gary some advice. I know he’s grateful for all the feedback he’s getting from you.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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26 thoughts on “How to Describe Your Book to a Publisher

  1. I have to bookmark this one, so much to consider! And… I’m so excited to read this book one day. I am also learning how valuable input is from readers and especially your editor :) (this is coming from the girl that used to get ill just thinking about being critiqued)

    • You point to a good issue for me to delve into further some day, that of being critiqued how to take criticism graciously but without being a wet noodle either. I think that’s something a lot of writers struggle with.

    • I share the fear! But I’m learning here and elsewhere that there is a lot to gain from editorial input — in my first book crucial changes came at my editor’s suggestion that greatly improved the final version. And while it feels a tad naked, I’m finding that great input can come from a community like this that cares about things I care about.

      Still, in that same first book there were things I had to hold fast on to preserve the integrity of the project as my project — and I think it is better for that as well.

  2. Good Morning, Chad and Gary!

    Another wowser! I’m going to have re-read this when I can pour another cup of coffee. …And grab some chocolate.

    I’m a fiction gal so, Gary, obviously what we write is different, but I would love to read your book. Since fiction is my calling, I love “stories.” I guess I’m a visual person…I like to “see” things unfold and then apply the knowledge I’ve learned. I agree with Chad’s advice about offering narratives/examples, shorter chapters, and subheadings. To theolgians this might be a piece of cake, but for those of us who lack the doctrinal training/expertise, I would appreciate some practical and easy-to-understand anecdotes/examples with the meat and potatoes. (And yes, give us some Quakers! I love that idea.)

    I so agree that we are a “hungry” society. We want concrete tools we can better equip ourselves and our community with as we share the love of Christ and advance His kingdom. And since many of our young adults begin to fall away from the church in or after college, you’re going to address a very real need through this topic.

    Our S.S. class is currently doing a study on A.W. Tozer’s Pursuit of God. I’m amazed at that man’s life. Extraordinary! I believe I read that he wrote most of that book on his knees, and when he prayed, he did it lying face down–ever-so-mindful of coming before the Throne.

    I’m curious, Gary, how do you write? Do you have specific times of day or certain patterns that inspire you more than others?

    And, Chad, yes, I did chuckle at your example of an “uninspired” proposal. A question for you, as an editor. Have you ever asked to see more based on anything like the above because of the compelling subject matter, or would that sink a project before it left port?

    Starbucks Cheers, all! (I must create some upset for my heroine now.)

    • Cynthia, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what you’re asking with this question: “Have you ever asked to see more based on anything like the above because of the compelling subject matter, or would that sink a project before it left port?” Can you clarify?

    • Cynthia, thanks for your thoughts and questions here.

      I totally agree about the value of stories — and I suspect that deep down inside that is why when I pursued my academic training I travelled down the “Church History” road to reach theological topics, rather than taking my degree in a “Theology” program. I find many people can grasp and make use of theological material when they encounter it in the stories of when and how and for whom it became important. And that is actually what shapes my vision for this project, since by telling the stories of some really interesting movements, theological themes and practical wisdom can be brought out without seeming either abstract or like something I personally thought up.

      Because of the hunger Christians and our society and as a whole feel for practical tools and insights, it seems all the more important to provide rich and nourishing food. Things I can make up on my own feel like chips and soda, but the wisdom of past movements that had real impact over time feels like meat and potatoes and fruit and veggies.

      You asked how I write, and on useful practices I suspect you have much more experience and wisdom to share than I do!

      I think the most helpful thing I do is “free writing” where I start the day with pen and paper (a good fountain pen, please, with a really smooth-flowing fine nib and Waterman’s “Florida Blue” ink; and the really good paper of a quality journal) and start writing. If I think about my current project and start with how I feel about it and just keep writing about some aspect of it, good stuff comes out. I have to just keep writing without stopping to fuss with it. Getting an unimpeded flow from thoughts my brain to words on the page is all that counts. That is my way to keep the demands of the internal editor in check. I can tell my editorial brain “Your time will come; I have to get some thoughts on paper so you have something to work with, so just sit tight for a while.”

      The more often I start my day that way, the better the project flows. Sometimes I’ll free-write over the same problem for many days, and sometimes something new and useful comes straight out. Sometimes I transcribe my free-writing into the computer, and sometimes I set it aside and write into the computer anew.

      As a project emerges (usually something smaller than a book, but even in my limited book writing experience) I tend to work best if I create a kind of outline structure that I can work on piece by piece in whatever order suits me — the order of creation is often quite different from the order of presentation.

      Thanks for asking! I’d love to hear your practices as well.

      • I love this: I can tell my editorial brain “Your time will come; I have to get some thoughts on paper so you have something to work with, so just sit tight for a while.” I’m tweeting/posting a condensed version of that in a bit…

      • Gary, thanks so much for sharing your writing process! I always find other writers’ methods fascinating. Sooo hard for me to turn off my internal editor, but you’re absolutely right! It does impede my thought-flow when I anguish over just the right word or phrase. I suspect that’s a lion that many of us try to tame.

        Thanks for imparting your wisdom!

  3. Chad, to clarify, I was curious whether you’d ever asked to see “more” from a writer who has a compelling/mass appeal subject despite a lackluster proposal. I’m thinking more along the lines of “I had a come-to-Jesus meeting when I died and went to Heaven three times” types of stories.

    All quipping aside, what if the subject is to-die-for interesting, but it’s communicated in the robot-like fashion you described above?

    In other words, Gary’s work intrigued me from the outset, and his proposal played upon his strengths.

    What about those non-fiction authors who lack the vision, but may have a great message?

    • I see. Yes, we regularly come back to authors and ask for more or to find out if s/he would be willing to go a slightly different direction. But lackluster proposals obviously don’t do any favors for us or the author who submits such. Thanks!

  4. Gary,

    From your book description I can tell you have put in countless hours of research and have probably written well into the night on this description. From a theologian perspective, I think it sounds wonderful, but I am not a theologian so I would completely and totally trust that all your research is correct. I think many authors go wrong when they’re history is not completely correct or off a tad. Keep up the good work and I think tackling this subject is a challenge worth the effort! :)

    I am a fiction writer so I come from the fantasy side of writing. My passion is WWII, so naturally I delve into Historical Romances of that time period.

    Normally, I would be apprehensive in sharing my synopsis, description, ect..but I will include my pitch that helped me final in last year’s Harlequin/Mills and Boon’s So You Think You Can Write Contest: (If there are any critics out there, feel free to critique)

    Luke Brady finds himself serving with the United States Army in 1942 just as the war in the Pacific has heated up. Single, and refusing to marry, Luke fights the feelings he’s developing for his pen pal, Grace Myers. With each letter that is exchanged between them, Luke’s heart is softened despite his fears of leaving his loved one behind should he be killed in the line of duty.

    Grace Myers’ heart is not ready for love. A year old tragedy still lives in her mind, binding the seams of her love life until no one can enter in. But when a mysterious woman asks her to adopt a pen pal, all her fears and misgivings unravel, testing her faith to the core.

    When Luke’s deployment into battle draws near as D-Day approaches, William Bixler, a young medical student, vies for Grace’s hand. If Luke succeeds in winning Grace’s heart, all hopes of a lifetime together may be shattered as he lands on the beaches of Normandy in the most dramatic battle of World War II.

    (*Note: Grace’s story is different than the pitch I entered in the contest*)

    Chad, another great post I enjoyed reading! Thanks for all the great pointers!

    • Rachel, thanks your affirming words about my project and for sharing your synopsis! Sounds like a great story, and I hope it has, or will, reach print soon.

      Though I’ve never written a fiction synopsis, I wondered whether the first two paragraphs would be better reversed in order. Grace gets a pen pal… Luke finds the pen pal softens his heart…William comes in as rival…

      Just a thought!

      • Gary,

        You’re right about that. I have pondered that myself. It is still considered a WIP since I have had it critiqued, but I love hearing what could be done to better the piece. Thank you for your input and I will highly consider reversing the paragraphs, which would flow in a more orderly way. :)
        Best wishes in your writing endeavor and it is very brave of you to put your work and learning experiences out there for the public to see.

  5. I love your vision as communicated here, Gary. It really provides a clear picture.

    The questions I have relate to the target audience. In marketing, a target audience means something very specific, often described by demographics, psychographics and behavior so you have a notion of how and where to find people in the target. I’m wondering how a publisher sees something like this: “This includes those in traditional congregations who long for something more in their life together…” That definitely gives us a view into the mentality, but those unspoken longings are hard to uncover in the marketplace. Those currently engaged in church planting represent a much more targetable audience. Chad, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of what publishers look for in defining the target audience.

    A couple of other questions in general came to mind:

    –I’ve read that non-fiction books are supposed to be 45,000-55,000 words, but that you shouldn’t actually write the book with the proposal. If you haven’t actually written the book, you don’t have an actual word count. So is the purpose of this just to let the publisher know if it falls on the long or short end of normal (and that you are aware of what “normal” is)?

    –What is a reasonable completion time frame?

    –Would it be appropriate for the overview to lead in with a “pitchier” style, by first identifying the problem, then addressing why the competitive landscape of books don’t answer the problem effectively, THEN describing your book as a solution (as long as all this is still 3-5 paragraphs)? Because I’m writing on Christian parenting, and the market is flooded with that type of book, I feel I have to somehow set the stage more uniquely up front. Is that an appropriate structure for this section, or does it need to be a book summary straight through?

    Would love any insights! I will tackle this for my own concept this weekend.

    • Thanks, Natasha. Most of this is stuff Chad will have more to say on than I do, but I can comment in relation to my own thinking on this proposal, and maybe that will be of use too.

      On the target market: I am very curious how specific Chad wants an author to be. Not being a marketing professional I don’t have ready access to data, or even really a sense of the right terms to use in terms of demographics and psychographics. I might be able to say more in another section of the proposal, but here the 3-5 paragraph limit restrained me–and Chad indicated this was already rather long. So… what to say about target market and where to say it are my questions.

      On word count: In proposing my first book (Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers) I had a page-count length in mind based on my own planned outline. I turned that into a word count in the proposal, and when I received a contract it was for a particular (different) word count.

      As I wrote that book post-contract, I created a spreadsheet with word-count targets for each chapter with a total for all sections reaching the contracted number. Then in another column I kept track of the actual current length of each chapter as I worked. Some were well over target and had to be cut — radically. Some were still far short when I started. In the end some were a little over and some a little short but all were close and the book reached its target.

      Now as I propose this project I have a sense of the chapters I’m planning in relation to the experience of the previous book. So I made a similar spreadsheet for X number of chapters of word-length Y plus front and back matter totaling Z additional words– and I came up with 53,000. So although the book is not written, I actually do have a word count; and I also am aware that whoever contracts the project will have a big say in the actual length of the book I will write.

      On time frame: I suspect that what I’ve put in the short summary above is longer than a publisher would find reasonable. Chad will let us know. However, Chad’s generous coaching offer prompted me to work on this proposal much earlier than I otherwise might have. That does not change the other demands my professional life which shape the timeframe for completing the project.

      On market competition: I left this out here. Chad’s list of things to include did not mention it. In my first book proposal (for which I used Elizabeth Lyon’s “Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write” as my guide) I included a very detailed description of the competition in the marketplace. It took a lot of time and effort to produce, but certainly clarified my vision for how my own proposed book was a unique contribution.

      • Thanks Gary for the explanation on the word counts! Hearing how you’ve approached that is really helpful. I live by spreadsheets, so this method makes beautiful sense. :)

        I hope Chad will comment re: target audience. I’m guessing there aren’t specific words that need to be used, but it will be interesting to hear more about how publishers look for a well defined market.

        I think your book description works great with the structure it has right now. The only reason I mentioned the competitive aspect is because I wondered if books in a particularly competitive subject area (like Christian parenting) should structure this differently to focus on demonstrating uniqueness.

        • Regarding target audience, demographic and psychographic info is useful, even if some part of the audience is difficult to target. Regarding length, we all understand that the length in the proposal is a projected length, not a precise one. Regarding time frame, 8 to 12 months after contract is reasonable, but if an author needs even more time, that’s okay. And in terms of a pitchier opening, yes, that’s just fine. Sorry for my delay in responding!

  6. Wow, that was an impressive analysis. Thank you for sharing this wisdom.
    I have been finding myself speechless many times when people ask me what my book is about. I wrote one short book of 16,000 words and I am currently writing one that should be about 45,000 words.

    My finished piece is inspired by the story of a gay flamingo couple in a zoo in London named Carlos and Fernando which adopted an abandoned flamingo chick. I changed the setting to Tanzania, where Carlos’s girlfriend Rita has just left him. When he meets Fernando he thinks he has found a friend that can help him through this rough time. But when Fernando reveals that he likes males, Carlos doesn’t know how to respond to this – especially since he has established more than friendly feelings for Fernando. On top of that Carlos’ best friend and Fernando’s sister Mona dies and leaves a newborn, which Carlos and Fernando decide to raise. But that is nothing compared to the worst stork attack of all time that is about to happen.

    Would you represent this book as an agent? Or would you say there is something missing? So far I have been receiving friendly individual rejections, saying, they liked the idea but the fact that it is so short and a book about talking flamingos makes it hard to publish.

    Do you have any advice for me? Or do you see potential in my idea?

    You seem like the Guru of editors, so it would mean the world to me to get a feedback from you. Thank you,

    Simon